Considering that Clint Eastwood’s latest flick, American Sniper, has made nearly $250 million since its release in mid-January and has become the highest grossing war movie ever produced, I am going to assume that most of you have seen it. I am also going to assume that you either loved or hated Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in history, and that many of the conversations in which you have engaged or just overheard are connected to the hunky actor. More provocatively, some of you may have an opinion as to whether or not the Oscar-nominated film painted Kyle as a glorified killer or is merely war propaganda.
Working in the veteran space, I have encountered these opinions and many more. I have read the articles and listened to the debates. Yet, one thing is clearly missing: a conversation about Taya Kyle, Chris’ widow. There lacks an acknowledgement that this is as much her story as it was his. In fact, she is the brave one who allowed the film to proceed after Chris’ death so that her children would have a memory of their father and America would have an inkling of what it means to live the ideals of duty, honor, and country. The arguments about whether Chris Kyle was a hero will continue and that is fine. However, let there be no doubt that Taya is a hero.
Having previously been through two combat deployments during my time as a military spouse, I identified with Taya’s character throughout the film. My stomach knotted with her panic as she watched the news and I remembered how that lump in your gut comes to represent nearly every emotion by the time the deployment is over. I felt the tears she tried to hold back between deployments when she told her husband, “even when you’re here, you’re not here”. I was just as angry when I took a back seat to the military. Everything in that portrayal was real. However, that reality has seemingly passed over many and the discussion has centered on the casting of Sienna Miller to play Taya and rather than the service and sacrifice of our military families.
It appears the critics have forgotten that Taya is a real person who has persevered and given us all a gift. Through her grief, she has forged ahead with the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation with a mission to serve those who serve us by providing meaningful interactive experiences that enrich family relationships. When she watched the film for the first time, she came out crying and said that she felt like she had just spent two hours with her husband. Let that settle in; that is just about as real as it gets. Moreover, there seems to be a disconnect that men and women similar to Taya continue to experience similar things daily. Last time I checked, we still have troops overseas, meaning we still have military families on the homefront.
In a recent story released by the LA Times, Taya told reporters she will be happy if even one person married to a soldier or first-responder sees the film and feels a little less alone. I think we can do better than that, for her and for all military families.
This film has the potential to stimulate discussion around mental health issues, but even more so around the unique opportunities and challenges facing military families. This is exactly what screenwriter Jason Hall aimed for. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Hall stated that he wanted to dig deeper than other films to really hone in on what happened to Chris Kyle when he came home and what war cost him. He spent hundreds of hours with Taya to make sure that he was accurately depicting their relationship before, during, and after deployment with the understanding that other films prior had been missing that piece.
More directly and in a more tangible fashion than discussion, the film has prompted Got Your 6 to spearhead a new initiative called “6 Certified” that will hopefully shift the often negative perception of veterans in popular culture. Studios and producers will have the ability to receive certification and display a badge if they fulfill at least one of six pledges: “to research or consult with veterans, family members or experts in the subject; to cast a veteran; to hire a veteran as a writer; to portray a veteran character; to tell a veteran story; or to use veterans as resources on set or in writers rooms”. It is my hope, and the hope of the initiative creators, that targeting media in this way will allow people to stop and think about the content of the show they are watching; to think about the real people who in some way inspired these characters.
American Sniper will not be the last movie made about Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can take the lessons learned and educate ourselves to execute an awareness to ensure future discussion on such films that include the Tayas of the war as often as the Chrises of the war.
Originally from Dillon, Montana, Tabatha Renz is a 2011 graduate of Boise State University. Her interests center on policies that affect veterans and military families. Tabatha is employed by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IAVA or any other entity.